Water management, resource preservation, waste treatment... Cyril Courjaret chose AFRIK 21 for his first speech. In this interview, SUEZ's new CEO for Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia looks back on his career within the Group and his priorities.
AFRIK 21: You are the new SUEZ CEO for Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Can you tell us about your professional career?
Cyril Courjaret: I am a “SUEZ baby”, if I may say so. I have spent almost my entire career in the Group, mainly on the international scene. I started in the company that was then called Degrémont (now SUEZ Treatment Infrastructures). I was in Latin America for a long time, based in Mexico and Brazil, mainly in commercial and then management functions. I then spent some time in France where I was CEO of Degrémont for Africa for two years. Then I moved to Lyonnaise des Eaux (now SUEZ Eau France) where I worked for seven years. For the past two years, I have been in charge of the Middle East and Central Asia Business Area, before adding Africa and the Near East to my territory of action, just a few weeks ago.
So, I am really attached to this group and its values. We have the chance to do a great job, in essential services. Contributing to the preservation of the planet is a challenge for everyone. But for us, it’s our job and SUEZ is actively involved!
What is your personal connection with Africa? How would you describe your relationship with the continent?
I have a very special bond with Africa. First of all, I spent the first 12 years of my life in Morocco. I wasn’t born there, but I arrived there 10 days after I was born. Before I went to Latin America, I spent all that time in Africa. Then I was CEO of Degrémont Africa for two years. I think that this is a continent where our business takes on a very special dimension.
I also have fond memories of when we commissioned the Nouakchott plant (in Mauritania) in 2012, where we saw the satisfaction of the authorities and the population at being able to have continuous water supply. I really felt that I had done my job. This creates a real proximity with this continent.
And in sub-Saharan Africa?
I worked less in sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, I have prepared a lot of projects, particularly in Senegal where, in the early 2010s, we laid the foundation stone for a commercial relationship through the construction of water treatment plants…. I also hope that the Baie de Hann project in Dakar will see the light of day, because I have been involved in this reflection since the beginning. There is also the Bita project (drinking water plant in Angola) that I started 10 years ago. These are complex projects that take time to develop.
Before being appointed, you worked in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East… In your opinion, what are the particularities of Africa in terms of infrastructure, drinking water, sanitation and waste treatment services? And what will be your priorities in this area?
In Africa, the population is expected to double by 2050. The first issue is the need to set up infrastructures to meet present and future needs, linked to demographic growth, urbanisation and the impact of climate change, in the three areas in which we work: drinking water, sanitation and waste management. The second essential subject is the preservation of the resource, given that it is becoming scarcer in some countries. Sanitation must be more developed, because the lack of sanitation systems is the cause of disease and pollution. But also, to develop more the reuse of treated wastewater for agriculture and industrial uses, the latter being a characteristic issue in this part of the world, which it shares with the Middle East.
As far as waste treatment is concerned, much remains to be done on the continent with two important aspects: the protection of the immediate environment, around landfill and recovery centres or green landfill, with biogas recovery and leachate treatment systems with green energy production and effluent reuse. Then there is the recycling of the various recoverable materials, which is currently in its infancy. However, we note that certain Maghreb countries, mainly Morocco and Tunisia, but also Egypt, and other countries such as South Africa, are very active in this area.
Finally, the importance of the role of International Financial Institutions in the financing or co-financing of infrastructures and their operation and maintenance to ensure their sustainability.
What is important to remember about these three core businesses of SUEZ is that the group has the skills and technologies needed to support Africa’s growth.
In terms of industrial waste management, SUEZ is very present in Morocco, what makes you special?
First of all, more and more, large industrial groups want to work with companies that are capable of meeting their demands to international standards, in any geographies. SUEZ is able to respond to offers that can be adapted to different locations, which is a major positive for our industrial customers. The second issue concerns the Group’s commitments and expertise in terms of sustainable development. Some of these large industrial groups are listed on the stock exchange. And the concept of environmental or extra-financial rating has taken on particular importance in recent years. It pushes these companies to entrust their waste treatment to an operator who can guarantee good management, with respect for the environment.
Exclusive economic zones are being developed in several African countries, such as Gabon and Togo. Do you have any projects in this area elsewhere in Africa?
As you know, I am the new head of this region. We are going to revisit the strategy in the coming months. And, in this respect, the development of activities in industrial waste treatment is an important subject. We are following the evolution of potential projects in several countries such as Tunisia and Egypt where we are working to develop solutions for our customers.
The preservation of the Africa entity within the scope of the future new SUEZ must have been a relief for your African partners and customers…
The SUEZ group has been present in Africa since the end of the 1940s. Through this long history, we have forged partnership links with many entities, just about everywhere. Obviously, the question of the new SUEZ is being asked by our customers, and it was of course a matter of expectation. But, although the whole operation is not finished, the first elements made known to the public show that Africa will remain within the scope of the new SUEZ. And our partners and customers have told us that they are extremely happy to continue working with us.
Since May 14th, 2021, there has been an agreement between the SUEZ group and the Veolia group which should allow the constitution of a world leader, Veolia, on the one hand, and SUEZ on the other, which will keep its activities in France and in other parts of the world, including Africa, and I am very happy about this. By June 29th, 2021, a purchase agreement should be finalised with a consortium of shareholders consisting of Meridiam, the American fund GIP (Global Infrastructure Partners), Caisse des Dépôts and CNP assurances. The consortium would make an offer for the purchase of the scope of the new SUEZ. The General Assembly of SUEZ should validate this agreement on June 30th.
From then on, there are many steps to be taken before the operation is finalised. First of all, consultation with the staff representatives. It will also be necessary to refer the matter to the anti-trust authorities who will rule on the takeover by Veolia of a certain number of SUEZ assets. Once again, this does not concern Africa because the continent will remain in the new SUEZ group.
Personally, how do you feel about this operation?
On a personal level, I experienced it as a shock. You understand, I’ve been with SUEZ for 28 years, and I’ve spent all those years fighting against Veolia in calls for tenders all over the world. The area I’ve been given to manage includes operations which will have to be developed, and then, in other countries, things will have to be rebuilt. And I’m relying heavily on Africa and the assets we have there to be able to redeploy.
Africa will represent a significant part of what the future SUEZ will do internationally. And so, its relative weight will have increased. And this can serve as a basis for redeployment in other regions of the world.
What are your challenges for the coming months?
There are several things that are important to me. First of all, making sure that our new contracts continue to function despite the health situation and that our employees work safely. That means continuing to deliver essential services without interruption, as we have done since the beginning of the pandemic. The second thing is to accompany the transition in the best possible conditions for my teams, in particular those in the Near and Middle East who will be joining Veolia. It is very important for me to see this mission through to the end. I am very attached to it.
And then, the third challenge is to prepare the Group’s future growth throughout the scope entrusted to me and, in particular, in Africa.
SUEZ’s R&D capacities will remain intact in the future new SUEZ. Is this important for your service offering in Africa, especially in terms of innovation and digital?
The two main activities that enable the SUEZ Group to conduct research and innovation today will remain within the scope of the new SUEZ. These are the International Research Centre for Water and the Environment (CIRSEE). And then all the activity of our subsidiary SUEZ Smart Solutions, which will also remain in the SUEZ group. It is obvious that to be competitive, i.e. to meet our customers’ expectations at the best price, we need a balance between operational performance and price. I am very happy that we are keeping these two pillars of innovation and digital development in the group so that we can optimise our offers, grow in Africa and elsewhere in the world…
To what extent do you need to deploy in Africa such innovative offers as the latest smart technologies?
The part of innovation and smart in our offers is growing today. For example, the centralised control of treatment facilities, real-time supervision of water distribution networks or the digitalisation and monitoring of waste treatment are absolutely essential to optimise distribution, manage water consumption and be able to provide the best service, while preserving the resource. These are technologies that we have developed in France and internationally over the last 10 years, and that we are already putting to use for our customers in Africa, in Morocco, Senegal and elsewhere. We are setting up teams and providing training so that our employees in the various countries are perfectly capable of managing this type of technologies.
Moreover, we are currently in the final phase of a call for tenders launched by the ONA (Office National de l’Assainissement) in Tunisia. I hope that we will win. And if we do, it is precisely these smart solutions that will also make the difference.
You are based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. In your new role, do you have any plans to travel to Africa?
We are in a somewhat complex sanitary situation, with travel openings still difficult. But I have been lucky enough to benefit from the UAE vaccination system for several months. I am leaving soon for Tunisia for my first trip to Africa, with other trips to the continent to follow. There are three categories of people I want to meet. Firstly, our employees, to make sure that they are in good health at this difficult time, and to reassure them of the SUEZ Group’s position in Africa. And I will obviously meet our partners and clients to reassure them of the SUEZ Group’s desire to accompany them in the future.
Interview by Jean Marie Takouleu